Forty per cent of PhDs at Exeter suffer ill health, study reveals

Exeter’s Students’ Guild survey prompts opening of doctoral college to combat isolation and depression

April 9, 2015

Source: Alamy

Suffering in silence: stress and depression can be exacerbated by the comparative isolation of postgraduate study

About 40 per cent of PhD students at one university believe that studying for a doctorate has worsened their physical and mental health.

This is one of the results of a survey of postgraduate researchers that was run by the Students’ Guild of the University of Exeter, which finds that a doctorate causes stress for the majority of students.

As a result of these findings, the guild and the university have announced plans to create a doctoral college to provide a central support network for PhD students and early career researchers.

Exeter’s Students’ Guild surveyed PhD students about their mental health and well-being in February after the National Union of Students announced that this was one of its priority areas. More than 165 students responded to the survey, which asked them to rate, on a scale of one to five, the extent to which they agreed with a series of statements about their mental health and well-being.

Overall, 85 per cent of respondents said that their work caused them stress, but the proportion of students agreeing with this statement increased in the latter years of a PhD. More than half said that money worries caused stress, and one-third said that a lack of friends and human contact was a source of stress.

Almost three-quarters said that “time is a constant pressure”, and one-quarter said that they had no time to relax. Two-thirds of respondents said that they felt guilty when they took time out from their studies. About 14 per cent of students said that they felt alone and isolated, with no help available.

A document summarising the results, seen by Times Higher Education, says that the responses “align broadly with national trends identified by the NUS”. It adds that the findings will help to inform efforts to make sure that the PhD student experience at Exeter “is as positive as it can be”.

It also contains a list of planned actions, including the creation of a doctoral college that will provide space for career development support and student collaboration, and make it easier for students to access support.

The university will also review the support that is available for PhD students through the University Wellbeing Centre and look at the current PhD mentoring service, under which every student has a dedicated mentor for pastoral support. Just 10 per cent of survey respondents said that their mentor helped them with non-PhD problems.

Exeter said that it had no information about why so few students used mentors for support. A spokesman said: “We do acknowledge that some [students] may experience stress and mental health problems, for a variety of reasons, some of which may be exacerbated by the fact that postgraduate research students form smaller cohorts, and may experience relative isolation as a result of the more solitary nature of their studies.”

He added that the report will help in the development of services that can better support the needs of this specific group in the future.

The Students’ Guild is also looking at how it could better assist PhD students after just 5 per cent of respondents said that they used the guild for support.

James Smith, academic representation manager for the Students’ Guild, said that its services were “perhaps not as well tailored or well publicised to PhD candidates as they could be”.

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